The Lambert Company‘s “Small Wonder” series of desktop audio components is the most engaging personal-audio system I’ve ever had the pleasure of losing myself in. A full retail price of $4,500 includes all of the relevant components, including speakers, subwoofer, amplifier, Bluetooth-enabled preamp, power conditioner, stands, cables and a desktop rack — that’s a lot of stuff. Still, it’s a steep hill, which makes their Indiegogo campaign pretty interesting — by getting in now, you can get that at half price. For that entry fee, you get a fully immersive experience that won’t completely consume your work space. My biggest complaint? Actually getting any work done! This system sounds incredible.
Do you desktop?
I do. It’s probably because I’m chained to a desk for something like 347 hours a day, so it’s not all that surprising that I “do things” to and at my desk that most cubicle nerds are rather familiar with. I decorate. I dance. I eat. I brew and then swill coffee in distressing volumes. I do just about everything. Well. I mean, there are limits. I sit on a chair, not a toilet, and no, there are no curtains installed at the desk so showering there would be messy. But barring that, and the odd requirement my body seems to have with being horizontal on occasion, I’m at my desk.
Not too many years ago, that desk was in a hopelessly generic corporate office building, stuffed somewhere on a middle floor, well away from elevators and windows — and other people. The best thing about that job was the fact I had an office and that office had a door. Let me just acknowledge that, “yes, there was dancing”, and move on. These days, my desk is in my home office, but either way, my last few decades have been spent rocking the phone or sending off brilliantly worded emails convincing whomever that my ideas are the ones to be followed, endorsed, or what have you. Now and again, I take that desk on the road — and no, I don’t mean “to the bathroom”. I get out. You know, into the world. I still have to head down to a nondescript corporate office for a regularly scheduled day spent in a cube, because some in corporate America still seems to find value in that, though that does seem to be thankfully on the wane. More interestingly, I have been known to set up shop at a coffee shop, a restaurant, and before Borders Books imploded, even a book store. My laptop apparently enjoys a change in scenery.
When I’m out and about, though, my music tends to not come with me. I’m a self-conscious public headphone listener, and given that I’m periodically prone to random outbursts (think: “Tourette’s”), losing track of my surroundings is a great way to get disinvited from the local library. Apparently, an off-key 45-year old signing snippets of “Let It Go” is unsettling. Bah. When I’m at home, my outbursts tend to go unremarked, which is nice, and that means “music time”.
I suppose this is when I would normally power up the big rig, but sometimes, that seems a bit much. If I’ve only got an hour or two, or maybe it’s just a lunch break, all the tubes in the Big Rig seem a bit daunting. Of course, if my wife is working somewhere else in the house, a rousing hour of Count Basie cranked to eleven is probably not going to be in the cards. That’s headphone time.
But while I do love me some big ol’ cans, sometimes I just want more. Okay, I almost always want more. I really prefer something I can rub my face in.
Tunes on my desk
Desktop audio occupies an odd, and often overlooked, corner of the audio market. It’s not really part of the usual two-channel segment. Nor is it “personal audio” or “portable audio”; those segments are usually dominated by headphone-based systems. “The Desktop” is somewhere between. It’s a sort of concession on the one hand — there are serious space requirements, and an expansion on the other — there’s no need for the isolation that headphones offer. Desktop audio is just this other thing.
It’s also probably best to separate it out from the whole “boom box” thing, too — in that a desktop system is generally considered to be more than an ultra-compact wireless “sound bar”, like a Sonos player, the new Deepblue2 from Peachtree, or the B2 Bluetooth speaker from Audioengine.
To date, my favorite “desktop experience” was delivered courtesy of Magnepan and their extraordinary $1,500 Mini system. That 3-piece rig did some amazing things on my work space and was intoxicating to use. I’ve had some luck with other systems, too, including the excellent Audiophile Desktop from CEntrance, Audioengine’s astonishingly great A5+, and various not-made-for-the-desk rigs that I pulled together just because I could. My Frankenstein desktop systems have ranged in price from $80 up past $10k, and they’ve been rather instructive about what works and what just won’t.
Let’s take a second and talk about that.
What doesn’t work
Rear Ported Speakers. This is probably obvious, when you think about it, but a rear-facing port is problem — at least for desks that are up against a wall. Mine is, though I’ve surfed on versions that had more flare out into the room. For those of us with a more traditional home setup (i.e., with a wall) or for those of us willing to explore the sheer sonic joy of the cubical world, having speakers pulled 12″ or more off the wall is not really a viable option. If the speakers are rear-ported, I’d gravitate toward the small-port options, even though this almost always implies a lack of bass reach.
Large speakers/drivers. I am a huge believer in bigger-is-better when it comes to many aspects of audio’s high-end, and “speaker cabinets” is one of those areas. Unless it’s on my desk. For many of the reasons why rear-ported speakers are problematic, large ones are too — they simply consume too much space! Another, related problem is that size almost always implies some kind of distance. Desktop audio is always near-field — and a 6″ driver isn’t always going to “knit” with a tweeter as seamlessly as a 4″ driver, not when you’re listening to it from less than 3″ away.
Short speakers. I just shot down the idea of big speakers and here I am taking pot-shots at compact ones. But the point is related — if the drivers are too close to the desk, and your face isn’t likewise that close to the desk, you’re going to need something to get those drivers firing at your face, wherever your face happens to be. In most cases, your face (and more importantly, your ears) are well over 18″ off the deck, as it were, and if the little speaker is sitting directly on the desk, chances are your chest is hearing better sound than you are. You’re looking for one of two things, then. One is “tilt”. That is, someway to get those sound waves up to where it matters — your ears. Two is just as good — stands. But either way, there has to be some way to get on-plane with the transducers, especially if any of your drivers are something fancy, like a ribbon.
What I’m looking for
This is a bit harder to quantify as I’m pretty open to new things, but I suppose there’s a list here.
Immersion. It’s not enough to simply make sound — sound bars do that. So do the speakers on my laptop. When I want to really listen to something, or lose myself in something, I want the sound to be something other than “present”. It’s gotta engage. Even better, it’s gotta take me somewhere else. I’m looking for a magic trick here, an illusion of presence. This relies, in part, on:
Resolution. Soft, fuzzy, inarticulate sound is a great way to get a system pushed back into the background, get ignored, and then not get turned on again. I still want tone, too, though. Men’s vocals should sound like actual people, not cartoons. That’s helpful — because a good desktop system is going to be doing more than just playing tunes.
Bass. This is more of a want-to-have, but any system that’s likely to stay is going to have to be very credible in the sub-80Hz range. No, it doesn’t have to be able to carry the subharmonics of an open-E on a bass guitar (41Hz), but that sure would be nice — and speaker systems that get closer will beat out those that don’t.
Space. This is a bit inverted, but a system that consumes too much is going to lose to one that’s more constrained. I don’t mean it has to be all-in-one or anything like that, it’s just that the components themselves have to be easily organizable and be made to fit into the architecture of the
mess desktop. I’ve got a desk phone (for work), a lamp, my computer and space for that coffee cup. Take any of that away, and we’re gonna have us some issues.
The Lambert System
Steve Holt, who shall forever have earned my envy (and not just for that impressive chin-tugger he sports) for setting up shop as “The Audio Nerd“, sent me a desktop system that I first heard about from Malachi and Kirsten, out of the California Audio Show, and that I got to catch first-hand at RMAF this year. The system comes from Garry Lambert of The Lambert Company and features a bunch of compact, desktop-friendly audio doodads, all artfully arranged in a way that showed serious promise to those of us with desktop space issues.
The finish, carried throughout the rest of the products in the lineup, is an understated eggshell-finish on the gun-metal-grey top-plates. The sides are done in a complementary black, resulting in an elegant two-tone look. The electronics gain a black acrylic front-plate, with the product’s name stenciled on the front and back-lit in blue with a small company logo.
The speaker system is a 2.1-way arrangement. The mains are a pair of D’Appolito array speakers, called “The Last Word”, with two 3″ drivers bracketing a ribbon tweeter. The dual drivers incorporate some in-house tech that Lambert refers to as CaRMA: “Concentric and Radial Mode Attenuation”, a technique that “reduces the major problem inherent in ALL loudspeaker cones – resonance based flexure. This causes ringing and time related distortion.” The speakers (like the electronics) are wrapped up in aluminum enclosures, resulting in a stiff, dense and tidy package — the speakers are 10″ high, 4″ wide and 5″ deep, and are available with matching aluminum 4″ desktop stands. Expected frequency extension is 120Hz-35kHz at 4Ω.
The matching subwoofer (the dot-1 portion of the speaker system) is called “The Bottom Line” and it is much bigger than the tiny speakers — 14″ tall, 12″ wide and 16″ deep, the Line covers 25Hz-120kHz with its 8″ woofer and on-board 200wpc Class D amp. Unlike most outboard subs, there are no dials for phase, it’s either 0 or 180º, selectable as a toggle. Given that they’re on-plane (speakers on, sub directly under), I went with 0. There is a dial for output — I fiddled a bit before goosing it just a hair up from “neutral”/straight up/down. It’s also non-optional; it can’t be purchased á là carte.
In a nice and considerate touch, the Lambert system comes with a full set of cables, too, including a subwoofer line and interconnects. For my listening, I used these but did try out some far more expensive cables. Assuming you’re open to such things, better cables might be a good thing to explore. I had great luck with WyWires.
The casework on the Bottom Line is identical to the Last Word, and the whole presents a very clean industrial aesthetic. Quite frankly, they dress up my desk more than a little bit.
I also got a stack of Lambert electronics to make the speaker system go bananas. The Force is a 50wpc Class D stereo desktop amplifier tucked into a 4″ tall x 4″ wide x 5″ deep box. It’s … teeny! There are RCA inputs and outputs, and a single RCA output for the sub. The binding posts are all 5-way. A mono-block version, called “The Full Force” is also available.
The mains power cord is actually a captured-cord power-conditioner, called “The Cleaner”, which targets RF on the mains and ground.
The last component is the tubed preamplifier, called “Control”. Control has three RCA inputs and one output, with a fat twin-triode 12AU7 tube sitting square on the top. The volume control is an Alps potentiometer, and it’s bracketed by a matching knob for selecting the input. Rotating the knob all the way over activates the AptX Bluetooth receiver.
My triple-stack of electronics came with a very handy acrylic shelf, allowing me to stack the Cleaner under the Force, which in turn sat under Control. The included wires are tidy and flexible, so I was able to push this pretty far back toward the wall, clearing up space on my desktop.
As I mentioned, this system is nicknamed the “Whole Enchilada”, and is available for pre-order at $2,249 US, with a full MSRP expected to hit $4,500 with full availability.
And that brings up a good point.
More crowd funding?
Yes, the Lambert Company is looking to crowd-funding to get a gauge on market interest. Right now, there are several projects scheduled from Lambert, including the very entertaining “Play It By Ear” headphone amplifier, and the desktop system I’m writing about here. These are all fully-prototyped and pretty much ready-to-go, the question is “how much should they make?” I don’t actually run the company, nor is my telepathy anything better than “unreliable”, but I can imagine that production runs are a whole lot more cost-effective if the manufacturer knows exactly how much will be needed, one, so they can meet demand, and two, so they don’t over-spend with excess inventory they don’t need yet. Crowd-funding is a clever way to address that market interest, which is part of why Lambert is currently running a campaign on Indiegogo right now. First movers are being rewarded with heavily discounted manufacturer-direct pricing. Get ’em while you can.
Whether or not you should invest depends entirely on any number of unquantifiables. What I can tell you is that I have the gear, right now, and I’m staring at it. It’s also plugged in and running — I’m listening to it play back some tunes via Tidal HiFi’s streaming service. Yes, it all works. I also happen to have the headphone amp here, too, and yes, that works too. I know quite a few folks that have them, and/or have seen them live and in the … metal? Yeah. Anyway. I know that investors in some campaigns have been worried about the soundness of backing such — let me say that I find that fear reasonable. That said, I have a good feeling that this campaign is above-board.
If, however, you do not, I won’t blame you. But you will be missing out on some truly awesome discounts.
The Whole Enchilada
So, I’ve saved the best for last.
Because it is. The best. This is best-sounding desktop-system I’ve heard here at chez moi, and I freakin’ love it.
Before I get there — one aside. I used the system almost exclusively with my external, not included, $2,400 Chord Electronics Hugo as my digital-to-audio converter. There is a DAC embedded in Control, but it’s only for decoding Bluetooth signals. As to that, I can attest that “it works” and that if you’re so inclined, you can go there. For me, sitting right in front of it with my laptop splat in between, this seemed silly, so I went with the overachieving Hugo as it was (and is) absolutely silent, takes up very little space and sounds pretty d*** good, to boot. And no, I’m no taking anything away from the Lambert system by saying that the outboard DAC sounds better. And the system is good enough, and resolving enough, to demand the best you can front it with.
Changing stride now, I want to note that, after everything has been all set up, what struck me about the speakers was this freakishly awesome sense of the soundstage. The speakers do that thing that audio writers talk about — they “disappear”. No, really, they do — they’re impossible to locate when the set up is correct. Heck, when it’s even reasonably close to correct — these are some seriously un-fussy speakers. Assuming you’re up against the wall, you can shove these speakers pretty much almost right up against them — you’ll get a little “boost” from wall reinforcement, which is interesting. You can pull them out, and let them stand free and clear and get some incredible precision. Better still, the music comes through with some very distracting 3-D holographics.
This is a problem — this system is not going to be something you can ignore. Turn them on during your work day at your peril. Ha!
My desk, at only 4″ wide these days, is barely doing justice to these speakers. I can imagine that having a big desk, at 6′ or even 8′, would only do incredibly good things to the size and scale of the sound stage, but given that everything here was a bit smaller scale, the images are extraordinarily cut, hanging across the canvas stretched across the speakers.
The resolution was easily fine enough to sort out the recordings that “do sound staging” and those that don’t — Yo Yo Ma’s breathtaking rendition of the Prelude to Cello Suite #1, for example, hangs squarely between the speakers. The Chris Jones tune skitters, dances and darts left and right across a seamless web flaring well beyond the actual speaker positions. Toeing the speakers in or out has the usual impact here, which means a some degree of tuning-to-taste. I found that with the speakers toed in completely, the sound stage was insanely focused, with a sound stage precision that would make a perfectionist blush.
Toeing them out and firing “straight on” didn’t do much to blunt this focus, but did widen the sweet spot and happily added a bit more depth, say, to the Yo Yo Ma track. Similarly, the rolling storm intro-ing “Brothers In Arms” was a wide and threateningly deep exercise in melancholy, and on the flip side, Audioslave’s “I Am The Highway” was just as two-dimensional and clipped as I’ve ever heard it, which is to say, the Lambert system gave me what I gave it.
Tone was excellent, with very credible reproductions of instruments in real space. Guitar strings on “Roadhouses and Automobiles”, for example, are very clearly steel, and the rasp of Chris Jones’ fingers across them is captured and portrayed as if he were playing 3′ in front of me. Triangles and bells from Pachelbel’s “Canon” (from The All Star Percussion Ensemble in DXD) tinkle, ring and shimmer before giving way to instruments I can’t name, but failing that, I can totally tell it’s some lunatic pounding on things. Lara St John, bowing her way through the Six Sonatas & Partitas for Solo Violin, gives an entertaining fresh view on her use of rosin.
Vocals have what I felt was the correct weight and heft; the level of detail retrieval is also rather high, especially for systems of this “desktop” class. The cricket test separated out birds from bugs, and Chris Jones, who’s vocals tend to fall on the lower end of the tenor range, sound full and throaty. Greg Brown, who definitely falls a bit lower on that scale, was huge on “Who Killed Cock Robin”, with his signature boulder-grinding rasp. No complaints here at all. Which brings me to the bass.
The Bottom Line, as a subwoofer, is such a cheat. Getting that extra oomph whenever a song called for it is like getting an unexpected gift. “Hello! Is that for me? Hooray!” Given that physics really doesn’t allow boxes as compact as The Last Word to “go there”, a sub is pretty much the only way to go — other than “not bothering”, and that’s no fun at all. Believe me, having that sub tucked under my desk is very definitely filling in a whole lot more than the floor. Jem, Morcheeba, and Lorde, all known for adding a bit more juice to the caboose, hit in a way that drew angry shouts from the non-cave dwellers in remoter parts of the domicile. Heh heh.
The problem I was having with the Whole Enchilada was paying attention. To anything else, that is. I joked about this earlier, but this is a serious problem. I found that I was semi-consciously goosing the volume past “casual listening”, as if my hand had its own agenda and was in cahoots with my ears. The net-net was that the sound was hilariously captivating and rendered the idea of “work” pretty much impossible to comprehend, much less execute. TPS reports? Yeah, we’re not doing those.
There are a couple of things worth mentioning.
First, the sub is kind of big, but saying that, I kinda feel like I’m complaining about physics. Do I want big sound? Then I need this sub. Anyway, having to steal that amount of space from my spasmodically arhythmic foot-tapping is a problem. Not an insurmountable one, but something worth keeping in mind.
Second, you may need to tip the speakers back just a bit to get the tweeters closer to an on-ear plane. I found that slipping a CD case under the front fork of the speaker stands lifts them “just enough” to bump up the focus and resolution. Similarly, the grills are great for looks, but you’re probably going to want to take ’em off for that last bit of sumthin’-sumthin’.
Third, the triple-stack of gear is really nifty-looking, but I do wonder if there isn’t a more compact way to do this, as in, why can’t we do an integrated instead of separates? The acrylic riser is a big help in saving desktop space, but separates need cables and cables need space which means the stack comes out from the wall and eats into my desk. No, it’s not so bad that my coffee mug ends up in my lap. Just saying the electronics could be a bit less conspicuous.
Lastly, don’t forget the warm up period — the system comes on-song after about an hour or so of playback. Prior to that, it may sound a bit flat or thin. Just give it a few, and in the meantime, be amazed at the speakers’ imaging while the amp and pre go through their calisthenics. Then, you have my permission to rock it out.
Wrap it up in time for the Holidays
I think the biggest downside is that I can’t keep this gear here, and you can’t get one till early spring, when the Indiegogo campaign has directed all of our delivery expectations.
All good things come to those that blah blah blah. I want!
Let me highlight a few things in closing.
Did I mention that this setup looks awesome on my desk? Fine, looks aren’t everything, but they’re a far cry from nothing. And the industrial chic of the Lambert gear is really attractive. That glowing blue logo and all that black-and-grey makes me all warm and fuzzy, in a “I’ll Be Back” Terminator kind of way. It works.
I have to confess — this setup beats the tar out of all but the most outrageous headphone rigs I’ve ever heard. One of the most pernicious problems in headphone-based audio playback has to do with sound stage — it’s really hard to get this “right” with cans. That’s why you keep seeing companies include weird little features like “crossfade” and other little tricks; they’re attempting to make the “headphone sound” just a bit more realistic, that is, more like what you’d hear live. Or what you’d hear out of a two-channel system. Like this one. Obviously, there are times where headphones are the only choice for your listening pleasures. But when there is an option, I’d submit that the Lambert system, showcased here, is going to be more engaging. By a country mile.
Finally, I have to admit that $2,250 is a lot of scratch for a system that will likely take second fiddle to some other system. I’m weird, and I’ll be the first to admit it — within steps of each other I have a two distinct 2-channel setups, a desktop setup, and a wet-bar that’s been consumed by headphone systems. That’s a lot. I can’t imagine non-reviewers would do this to themselves, or to their relationships with the other humans they share living space with. But for a “real” person, whether working from home or in some non-cube thing tucked into a corporate high-rise, I can totally see this system. See, and easily imagine it enjoyed.